Never have I ever been so thankful for Voltaire than when my boyfriend and I came dangerously close to starving in an area of the world that’s basically Antarctica. Yes, that’s a real sentence.
Recently, we went on a three-day backpacking trip through Patagonia. We had withdrawn what we assumed was a generous amount of Chilean pesos for the trip, because various legs only accept cash, and we knew there wouldn’t be an ATM chillin on one of the glaciers out in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, some expenses that we thought we had already paid for actually needed settling, some transportation that we’d been told could be charged by card actually needed cash, and some rates were more expensive than we had anticipated. Really, we’re noobs. After we got to the end of the earth via three planes and three buses, we didn’t have enough pesos for both of us to take the necessary ferry that would finally shuttle us to the start of our trek. More troubling was the fact that I had only packed enough food to have meager snacks on the trail (I planned on eating dinner at the hostels along the way). Even if we could finagle our way on the ferry, if the hostels pulled the stunt that everyone else had pulled and didn’t accept credit cards, I foresaw many hangry nights and weak attempts at backpacking uphill. I clutched to a word that means the same in English and in Spanish: no no no no no.
Luckily—before I completely lost my shit amidst a multicultural group of mostly non-English speakers—a nice American couple agreed to trade USD for pesos and the hostels agreed to take our Visa.
Truthfully, I was very grumpy in the hour or so that I envisioned having to live three physically strenuous days off of one questionably packaged Chilean sausage and a bag of raisins; however, there were brief moments where I found solace in Candide*, Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novella that I had finished the day before. Candide is like The Odyssey, in that a man named Candide travels a long, fraught journey to reunite with his true love, Cunégonde. Unlike Homer, we know a great deal about Voltaire, especially how his philosophical and religious views influenced his work.
Candide was written in response to a philosophy of optimism espoused by Voltaire’s contemporary, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz believed that, because God is omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent, the world that we live in is necessarily optimal, or the best of all possible worlds. The character Candide inherits this worldview from his mentor, Professor Pangloss; however, this belief is continually challenged as Candide faces trial after trial. He’s a good man with simple aspirations, and he can’t seem to catch a break. Surely his experiences are not the best that they could possibly be? Perhaps Pangloss deludes himself with a false optimism that’s in reality “the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong” (Voltaire, 49)?
I’m a sucker for dry humor and Voltaire knows how to dish it out. He renders Candide’s misfortunes as larger-than-life, and he describes catastrophic events in a deadpan, dark way, similar to that of Catch-22, the GOAT of 20th century literature. In the end, Voltaire doesn’t provide us a clear-cut answer key on how to endure hardships. Instead, he offers an enigmatic practical solution: avoid idleness and work without disputing. This notion reminds me of Albert Camus’ suggestion that one must accept the absurdity of existence and actively live in spite of it. Keep on keepin’ on.
In Patagonia, as I considered my helplessness and yearned for Taco Bell back home, I thought of Candide’s tribulations and his insistence on perseverance. He hoped that his plights would eventually resolve, but because nothing is guaranteed and things don’t always work out for the best, he swallowed the bitter pill of life and accepted his less than gratifying hand. Mad props to Candide and medium props to myself for not publicly wailing. Voltaire, in his infinite critical wisdom, receives 5 out of 5 camel humps for Candide.
*Voltaire. Candide. Trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Classics, Inc., 1984. Print.